To speak of God as holy mystery, permeating the world, as does Sister Elizabeth Johnson in Quest for the Living God, is to be part of an ancient mystical tradition that in Catholicism, and elsewhere, has leavened dogmatic theology. And certainly the religious naturalist is aware that the prodigious fullness and complexity of existence speaks of something that is beyond our powers to understand, something that evokes feelings of awe, wonder and gratitude.
But, like other Catholic theologians I admire, Johnson goes on to refer to the mystery as gracious, and loving, and as inviting us to participate in that graciousness and love. And indeed, that "invitation" can lead one to the kind of life of inclusiveness and love of others that I so admire in the professed women I have met. Johnson's book is so imbued with the essence of Christian love that it's hard to imagine the fusty and disapproving reaction of the bishops.
But the religious naturalist is loath to endow the mystery with qualities such as graciousness and love and invitation, which are, after all, human characteristics. Indeed, the very notion of "theology," god-knowledge, would seem to be a step too far. Mystery and -ology, it seems to me, are mutually exclusive.
As someone who professes orthodoxy, Johnson comes up against the adamant doctrinal core of the Incarnation and Resurrection. If these are historical facts, then God has entered history not as mystery, but as flesh and blood. And defied the laws of nature, to boot.
Some of the sisters I have met seem to take these core doctrines as symbolic, instructive in the way great myths can be instructive and energizing without being literally true. For them, Jesus is teacher and inspiration, a person who represented a turning point in history with his call to universal love. From the bishops’ point of view, denial of a literal Resurrection is a heretical bridge too far. "If Christ be not raised from the dead…etc."
It is hard for me to get a fix on Johnson's exact understanding of Incarnation and Resurrection -- she speaks often of the risen Jesus -- but I don’t see much that the bishops could object to. What I do see is a vision of what the Church might be that is altogether to be wished for.
In the meantime, it is the Church of the bishops that one has to deal with, with its roster of doctrines that take no notice of four centuries of the empirical investigation of nature, or of the seventeen centuries of human learning since Nicea. The age of miracles and magic is past. Still, religious naturalists can embrace with the Catholic sisters the ineffable mystery, and together try to build a world where love and justice prevail.
(Johnson's book and the bishops' response touch on matters scientific. More on that tomorrow.)